The Benefits of Closed-Mindedness

by JosephY1 min read3rd Jun 201419 comments


Personal Blog


Every so often, I will have a discussion with someone who wants to share their new “big idea” with me. Some of them make sense. Others, less so. For example, it was recently proposed to me that everyone has a soul, and it is the pattern of electricity in your brain. This pattern lives on after you die. The rather scary thing is that this idea was suggested to me by a neuroscientist getting her Ph.D. Aside from wondering “what does that even mean?”, one cannot help but notice the belief as attire in the idea.


And invariably, after objecting to these strange ideas, I will be told, "Don't be so closed-minded! There is so much that we don't know!"


Now, this is a strange form of belief as attire. It is the belief of the sophisticated person, who knows that since everything is a shade of gray, all is equal. It is very much rooted in dark side epistemology. In acknowledging their ignorance, they glory in the fundamental unknowability of the universe. "After all, if we don't know the truth, all explanations are equal! Who's to say that I am wrong? You can't disprove my theory!"


In general, I like to think of myself as open-minded. I support gay marriage, I am pro-choice, etc. And yet, doesn't everyone think they are open-minded? Do I discard legitimately promising ideas? Do I make too many false negative errors? I thought about it for some time and came to the conclusion: No, that idea was just plain silly.


Sometimes, when faced with a new idea, the instinct is to discard it out of hand. Sometimes we try not to believe new ideas, especially if they contradict long-held and deeply-rooted beliefs. And occasionally, the idea is correct, and you really do need to do a mental overhaul. However, that is often not the case.


A few million results come up in a google search for "benefits of homeopathy". However, I do not entertain homeopathy as a legitimate means of curing ailments. I have been told repeatedly of the existence of God. However, after the point where I understood the notion of "beliefs as anticipation-controllers", I held a strictly naturalistic worldview. I am dismissive of theories that do not fit this worldview.


I am skeptical to the extreme of implausible ideas. That is, after all, what closed-mindedness is. The measure of open-mindedness is merely about which ideas seem implausible to me. I tend to believe that if scientific education was better and more widespread, then people would become more skeptical of ideas that don't make sense. Of course, there is always the difficulty that one might end up being skeptical of strange but true ideas, such as cryonics.


So then the real benefit of closed-mindedness is this: it saves you the time of having to entertain silly notions. But remember the danger in too much of a good thing! Some wacky ideas are true. A simple test is to list as many problems with the idea as you can think of in one minute. If you've listed three or more seemingly intractable problems, and the one explaining it to you cannot solve them, then being closed-minded is probably a good idea. If, however, you can only think up a couple of problems, or the one can dispel your doubts, then it may be time to look into the idea further.


19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:58 PM
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In general, I like to think of myself as open-minded. I support gay marriage, I am pro-choice, etc.

Supporting gay marriage and being pro-choice should only count as evidence for your open-mindness if the people you associate with (your tribe) are strongly opposed to them.

Big Five Openness correlates with political liberalism, so cet par it would be weak Bayesian evidence for open-mindedness, even if it is not an example of it.

Speaking of Big Five:

In general, I like to think of myself as open-minded. I support gay marriage, I am pro-choice, etc. And yet, doesn't everyone think they are open-minded?

If everyone thought they were completely open-minded, then how can questionnaires even work for measuring Openness? I mean, have you read or taken one of them? The O questions aren't remotely subtle.

If your point is that Openness is probably not a thing-in-the-world, I would be inclined to agree, actually.

No, that's not my point. I don't know what real thing(s) make up the factor that factor analysis spits out and we label Openness, but my point is that if openness, novelty, new ideas, etc, really were universally valued, then there could be no such factor because everyone would recognize the Openness-loaded questions (they're transparent) and answer maximally. The fact that an Openness factor emerges out of pretty transparent questions shows that in the general population, there are a lot of people who will freely tell you on a questionnaire that they aren't keen on new ideas, who don't feel the need to seek out novelty, who won't be particularly creative on anything, and are fine with all that.

Let me rephrase it a little more subtly.

Suppose someone said, 'In general, I like to think I support free speech. I support letting Nazis march in Skokie, I agree with many of the ACLU's lawsuits, I'm horrified by what happened to Brendan Eich, etc. And yet, doesn't everyone think they support free speech? Can you imagine ever saying that free speech is a bad thing and unpopular groups should not be allowed to speak? I sure can't. So maybe I'm not nearly as liberal and tolerant as I think, and I'm merely engaged in self-congratulations on how wonderful I am!'

Sounds plausible, right? Just ask the neo-reactionaries how far free speech goes, right?

Except many, if not most, Americans hold views on free speech that would horrify you and me. (We don't even need to go outside the West to make this point.) For example, the General Social Survey asks Americans about free speech; using 2000+ data (so hardly historic), Razib Khan does some analysis. He's interested in splitting by intelligence so there's not an overall position unless I want to do more work extracting weighted averages than a comment is worth, but just scroll down to the first table and look at the various breakdowns:

  • 2-26% of Americans thinks gay people should not be allowed to speak
  • 3-36% of Americans think that atheists like me (& 79.2% of LW) are better seen than heard
  • 7-49% think militarists should shut up
  • 16-48% of Americans disagree with free speech for racists
  • 16-75% claim Muslims should not be permitted to preach against America

If we were to poll these questions on LW, I would be surprised if any category had >10%, and 49% (or 75%...) would be completely beyond the pale. Yet over these categories, probably a majority of the American populace holds at least one of these illiberal positions.

(Nor is free speech an exception; I have seen in a number of places that the majority of Americans often hold views I find cruel, disgusting, and despicable.) Surprising as it may seem, a lot of core values on LW are not universal even in the American populace. So yes, it absolutely is possible to be more open-minded than most people; more supportive of free speech than most people - in fact, it's not even hard. (Overestimating is a sin, but so is underestimating.)

What this example shows is that it's not as easy to apply social desirability bias as it may seem. It is socially desirable in the bubbles that LWers inhabit to support free speech, and so we might expect the true level of support for free speech to be lower than that expressed verbally, but these bubbles still filter for people with unusual support for free speech and given the general population survey numbers, we expect the true LW support to still be much higher than the general population support (even though it's hard to realize just how divergent we are because of the bubbles).

3-36% of Americans think that atheists like me and most of LW are better seen than heard

Even better, neither seen nor heard.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

I wonder how often do free speech supporters have to listen to views that they themselves don't hold, and if their tolerance is equal for children and adults. I am easily vexed by my son's unruliness, but I just roll my eyes at work when people begin talking (institutional) politics. Maybe if we controlled for status implications, the figures would change drastically?

... and if most of the people you admire are also pro gay marriage and pro abortion, it is evidence that you are not open-minded.

Weak evidence though, easily overcome by being open to whatever things your tribe denounces.

admiration != agreement.

As "open-mindedness" is commonly used, it's a conflation of three different concepts: inquisitive-mindedness, genuine open-mindedness, and tolerance. Inquisitive-mindedness sounds like what you're advocating - it's willingness to consider an idea and accept or reject it, and having rejected it to be less likely to consider again. Genuine open-mindedness is vaguely accepting without critical examination. Tolerance isn't epistemological, it's ethical and political - there's no necessary connection between willingness to accept ideas and letting people do what they want in their personal lives.

What you aft calling genuine open mindedness is what others call credulity.

I see open-mindedness more as a willingness to engage with new ideas, rather than being accepting of new ideas.

Assuming I'd never heard of homeopathy, being open-minded would consist of asking questions about the experimental results or setting up an experiment yourself instead of dismissing the idea out of hand.

"Don't be so closed-minded! There is so much that we don't know!"

Said after they've just told you some absurdity they claim to know.


  • Reason as memetic immune disorder "The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of."
  • Nerds are nuts "I was not surprised that the RSS had a core cadre of scientifically oriented leaders. This is a common tendency amongst faux reactionary movements with a religious element."
  • Compartmentalization (from the wiki)
  • Epistemic learned helplessness - "He told me a good portion of the point of CfAR was to either find or create people who would believe something after it had been proven to them. And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn't until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went 'Wait, no, that would be the worst idea ever."

tl;dr brains don't have virus checkers; compartmentalization and difficulty in being convinced as memetic immune system.

For example, it was recently proposed to me that everyone has a soul, and it is the pattern of electricity in your brain. This pattern lives on after you die.

If you add "... in the TL4 set of all mathematical structures," this would be trivially true to a lot of folks around here.

(But taking any kind of personal hope in this fact would remain kinda silly, like browsing a random shelf in the Library of Babel in search of good reading material.)

So then the real benefit of closed-mindedness is this: it saves you the time of having to entertain silly notions.

In this context it basically means that you spend less time in fun discussion with the female neuroscience PHD student? What's so awful about chatting with girls? I think it's a more fun topic of conversation than the weather. Don't attach yourself to judging the idea but play and explore the idea.

A key ingredient of being open minded is to avoiding being judgemental. You don't have to judge ideas. You can just play.